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BNA: Brand New Animal [Season One] (2020)

My favourite animal in the world is the tanuki. It’s a wild dog native to Japan; it looks like a fat stripy fox, if foxes were brown. The tanuki carries centuries of Japanese folklore, where it’s depicted as a magic, capricious shapeshifter, with more tricks than Bugs Bunny. Anime fans know tanuki from Ghibli’s Pom Poko and TV’s The Eccentric Family, or gamers from Super Mario. But the tanuki was a Japanese cartoon fixture before Bugs. In the 1930s it was already trolling samurai (here) or playing baseball (here).

The heroine of the new Netflix series BNA: Brand New Animal is a tanuki, or at least she’s a girl who’s turned into a tanuki when we meet her. Many fans will come to BNA with expectations, because of its production studio. It’s by Trigger, the outfit behind Kill la Kill and last year’s film Promare. Surely BNA will be driven by madcap, outrageous hijinks, with toon furries ruling the asylum, an anime Looney Tunes.

But it’s not that. It’s also not directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, responsible for the aforementioned Trigger titles (he also made the pre-Trigger Gurren Lagann). Instead, BNA is directed by Yoh Yoshinari, who previously gave us Little Witch Academia on Netflix. His follow-up is certainly cartoony, with glorious madcap stretches. In the first episode, the tanuki girl races to outrun a giant toppling video screen, heroically shoving along a bewildered goat with a zimmer frame.

But BNA is a largely straight adventure, even with Promare and Kill la Kill’s writer – Kazuki Nakashima, a respected playwright beside his Trigger gigs. In his previous anime, Nakashima used machine-gun jokes and zipping speed to hide solid plots and ideas. Promare’s plot exposition was one of that film’s heartiest jokes, unfolding massively and crazily like an outsized mecha. When I saw Promare in the cinema, the mad hologram scientist who pops up midway through to “explain” what’s happening got some of the biggest laughs.

Nakashima’s story in BNA is no less mad, really, but by the time we get to the big reveals, they’re not much funnier than Gundam. (They’re also less cohesive than Promare, but we’ll come to that.) BNA doesn’t even start that funny. Michiru, our heroine, used to be a human schoolgirl. She’s now a fugitive in a world where “beast people” are public knowledge but socially despised. The only place they’re tolerated is Anima City, where Michiru makes her perilous way.

In the first minutes, she’s attacked by killer teen hoodlums in a scene more Hunger Games than Zootropolis, and only saved by another beast person – a sly mink called Marie (“Not a weasel!”). Easter Egg: Marie is voiced in Japanese, very recognisably, by Michiyo Murase, the show-stealing Sucy in Little Witch Academia.  Once at Anima City, Michiru is thrilled that it is, indeed, a place for beast people to live safely. Well, relatively; there’s still crime, corruption and terrorism.

But the city also has a Batman-like defender, except he’s actually a wolfman, a humourless but dashing fellow called Shirou who protects the innocent. Michiru meets him chasing down the perps of a bomb attack. Shirou displays mighty powers and seeming indestructibility, but Michiru, it turns out, has mean powers herself as a tanuki. The first to manifest involve her bushy tail (good as a shield and wrecking ball), but it’s just the start of her arsenal.

Humans aren’t meant to turn into beast people, a separate species. So BNA’s story, which initially looked like X-Men with someone oppressed for evolving, is actually more Tokyo Ghoul, with a protagonist crossing into a different species. Fearing she’ll be trapped as a tanuki, Michiru seeks a cure at the city’s towering pharmaceutical company, a building with Plot Importance written all over it. She and Shirou continue to cross tracks, both helping and annoying each other.

Refreshingly, there’s no hint of romantic tension between them, and their pairing isn’t paramount. Instead, much of BNA hinges on Michiru’s relationship with a female friend who comes into the story several episodes in. Their relationship, complex like a real friendship, is a highlight of the show. As well as acing Bechdel, their scenes give more believability to the intrepid Michiru, who’s the kind of girl who can chew Shirou out for playing the manly rescuer. She’s also a kid who can see the wolf weep at a festival and think, “Eew, gross!”

By giving the characters developing personalities, BNA passes up the chance to make them iconically funny like Bugs Bunny. The most sustained “funny animal” comedy comes in a middle episode, a side-story where Michiru gets involved with a baseball team. I watched it expecting boredom, but was charmed by the silliness, and there’s actually a plot too. (The baseball players are bears but also slumdogs, in the tradition of the boxing manga Tomorrow’s Joe.).As for the old-fashioned slapstick, I wondered if the animators had referred to the 1930s baseball cartoon in the first paragraph. 

More broadly, BNA’s look is pleasantly old-fashioned. Its animal crowds with gormlessly lively expressions often reminded me of Sherlock Hound from the 1980s. There are great epic fights, and splendid hulk-out transformations by the animals, their physiques spontaneously swelling like Tetsuo in Akira. But BNA doesn’t have the pile-driving brashness of Imaishi’s anime. It’s lifted as much by its bit-part designs; I loved the giant mob boss with jagged teeth and his pelican henchman. I was disappointed, though, that Anima City wasn’t more architecturally flamboyant, given the Batman overtones.

The story is BNA’s contentious aspect. For instance, there’s a big reveal around the two-thirds point about a character’s secret; it’ll lose some viewers right there, especially as it’s not sold as a joke a la Promare. Personally, I rather like anime’s “Oh, come on” outrageous plot developments, if they feel wholehearted. (I even like the end of DARLING in the FRANXX, a Trigger collaboration, which everyone else hates.) I could also forgive BNA’s increasingly lengthy plot explanations, having grown up on last-century Doctor Who, which Nakashima’s Trigger stories often resemble.

But anyone watching BNA for explanations will crash at the end. BNA’s last twist-reveals come in a graceless flurry, made partially palatable by the equally frantic visuals of the climax, with giant monsters and battling colours. Several “answers” to the story’s questions are nakedly arbitrary dangles, and you’ll look in vain for coherent metaphor or commentary (barring a neat comparison between religious gurus and pop idols). Disney’s Zootopia deployed cartoon animals in a nimble allegory for race relations. More recently, Studio Orange’s Beastars used them in an edgy fable of gender tensions.

BNA suggests something similar in early episodes – there’s a good story about a lonely girl and the privileged girl who wants an exotic trophy friend. But the show’s “big” backstory stitches in jarring Holocaust references and what might be a statement about Japan and monoculturalism, if it didn’t drown in contradictions. BNA must be saved by its cartoon animals, which thankfully isn’t hard. If BNA has an (inadvertent) moral, it’s that animals don’t need to be part of deeper beast fables to delight. 



A messy script makes  BNA far from Trigger’s best, but it still has many pleasures, especially its surprise emphasis on female friendship.

Andrew Osmond is a British Journalist specialising in animation and is the UK editor of Anime News Network. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net